The air in the Landry Team House was nearly impossible to breathe from the tension. Dominic Walker had been voted off the show. This was the first teammate to be eliminated. Reality had slapped them all in the face. Any one of the team could have been sent home. Any one, the consensus seemed to think, except Kendra.
She was feeling the resentment from her team, even Shera was treating her differently. She tried to tell herself that it was because the overall competition was getting tougher, but she knew the truth. As much as she tried to deny that she and Jax had connected on a deeper level, she was struggling to believe it herself. And she’d never been a very good actress so making others believe it was nearly impossible.
Dominic didn’t outright blame her, but the look he gave her said what he was thinking. Probably what everyone was thinking. They didn’t stand a chance at winning with her around.
Ken stood with everyone else on her team as the door closed behind Dominic, but it was Randi who turned first. She narrowed her blue gaze as she glared at Jax.
Her hair was frosty blue this week—a reflection of the ice-cold look in her eyes. “He didn’t deserve to go.”
“This is a contest,” Jax started.
“And you’re our coach, but you’re too busy flirting with Kendra to prepare us!”
Jax leaned back a bit, clearly not expecting that attack. His mouth opened once, closed, then opened again.
“That’s not true,” Kendra said calmly.
“We each got an hour a day of Jax’s time,” she pointed out.
“And some of us got overtime by the pool in the middle of the night,” Randi taunted.
Kendra cocked her brow. “And some of us practiced singing instead of seeing how much cleavage we could show without getting censored.”
“Okay,” Jax said holding up his hands.
Too late. Randi took a deep breath, clearly preparing herself for the inevitable confrontation.
The cameras moved closer, and Kendra shook her head. No. She wasn’t sinking to this level. She wasn’t going to make an ass out of herself on television. Turning, she marched up the stairs, ignoring the insults Randi was flinging at her back. Something about how at least she had cleavage to show. Jax’s smooth voice followed that, likely trying to calm the situation but Kendra ignored that, too. She slammed the bedroom door and threw herself on the bed.
And then she cursed because Randi wasn’t completely wrong. No, Jax hadn’t given Ken extra lessons or pointers, but they had spent more than one night out by the pool after everyone else had gone to bed. And the show was happy to splice together the highlights.
Very little about the thirty second introduction video to her last live performance had been about her or her music. The video had basically been a condensed version of every moment she’d spent with Jax. And there had been plenty. Crap.
Something had to give. Something had to change. And as much as she wanted to say she could stay away from that man, she knew better. He was like a magnet to her heart and the only way to stop being drawn into him was to put distance between them. That wasn’t possible in this house.
Or while she was still on his team.
Grabbing the phone off the stand, she pushed the button to call Martin. He’d been assigned to this mess of a team at the beginning and it was time he started doing his job and found a way to get Kendra out of this mess.
Jax sank onto the barstool with a beer. After battling it out with Randi as Shera and Pete silently took her side, he had sent them all away as if they were children. And in a way, they were. Very angry, disgruntled children.
He didn’t think he could handle much more of this. The stress of trying to keep his feelings for Kendra under control while letting them show just enough to keep the producers happy was a balancing act he was quickly beginning to resent.
To hell with them for putting him in this position. And he was lying to Kendra. He hated that. That was no way to start a relationship.
A relationship? Where the hell had that thought come from? Damn it. His mind was spinning like a windmill in a tornado. He needed to step back and get his head on straight before he blew this entire thing. Not just his friendship with Kendra and all the others on his team, but his attempt at a comeback.
The producers were all about their ratings. They didn’t care what would happen to him if the world found out he’d been forced to deceive Kendra. And they didn’t care that it could break her heart. Or his.
He was a pawn. So was she. Only she didn’t know it.
He smiled at how Kendra’s gravelly voice instantly put him at ease. Turning, he toasted her. “This is helping.”
She sat next to him. “I shouldn’t have stepped in. Randi made me mad.”
She took a breath, held it, and let it out slowly. “I called Martin.”
Jax’s heart dropped to his stomach. “Why?”
“Because Randi is right. Everyone is right. It’s not fair.”
She lifted her hand. “We have a bond. Something you don’t have with the other members of the team, and it isn’t fair.”
“I’m not giving you special treatment.”
“I know that. But they don’t, and it’s having an impact on everyone.”
He couldn’t argue that point. He’d considered it more than once himself. “So what’d you say to Martin?”
She offered him a soft smile. “I asked to be moved to another team.”
“No. Kenny.” He pushed his beer aside. The cold drink was no longer appealing. “Don’t do that.”
“It’s the right thing.”
Maybe it was, but there was no way the producers would agree. They were seeing increased ratings and a growing fan base, presumably thanks to Jax and Kendra. “They won’t let that happen.”
Confusion filled her eyes. “Why? It’s best for everyone.”
He glanced at the cameras and realization lit her eyes. She didn’t need to know about the secret mission of the producers—to amplify the attraction between them—to realize that the drama in the house was good for the show.
She bit her lip and nodded. “Well, he said he’d see what he could do.”
Jax looked away, not wanting to look in her eyes as he lied. “I’m sure he’ll do his best.”
“In the meantime,” she slid off the stool, “I’m going to spend a little more time in isolation. Don’t take it personal, okay?”
He nodded, but he knew that’d never stand either. The moment the production team got wind of her plan, they’d probably put deadbolts on her door, preventing her from entering. He didn’t mean to, but he chuckled wryly.
“What?” Kendra asked.
He shook his head. “I was… You’re talented. And you’re a good person. And you deserve the best possible chance to win this thing. I hope you get that.”
She creased her brow. “So do I. Goodnight.”
He swallowed his guilt as he decided it was better to manipulate her on his terms than the networks. Reaching out, he put his arm around her waist to stop her from leaving. She was visibly shocked, but didn’t try to stop him from using her hip to turn her to face him.
The questions in her eyes were clear, and he had to swallow the urge to pull her even closer.
“No matter what happens,” he whispered, “I need you to know that I really do believe in you.”
She stared at him for several heartbeats before whispering, “What do you think is going to happen?”
With her standing this close, the scent of her lotion or shampoo or whatever the hell it was tickled his senses. He wanted to bury his face in her dark hair and breathe her in. Somehow, he thought the look in her eyes said she wanted that, too.
He kept his hand firmly on her hip as he shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess anything is possible.”
“I guess it is,” she whispered.
“I’d hate to see you lose just because we’ve become friends.”
Her lip curved slightly. “I wouldn’t call it a loss if I get to have you.”
Her eyes widened slightly and her mouth opened. She obviously hadn’t meant that to sound the way it could be perceived. He was tempted to tell her not to worry, he knew what she’d meant. But he chose to smile instead.
“You get to have me,” he whispered. “If you still want me when all this is over.”
She lowered her face as her cheeks turned an alluring shade of red. He was more tempted than ever to kiss her. Instead, he released his hold on her.
“Good night, Kenny. See you in the morning.”
She slipped away without another word, and Jax reached for his beer. Damn it. This was not going to end well for him.
Kendra strummed her guitar as she stared up at the sky. She would have thought the lights of L.A. below her would have dulled the stars up above, but they didn’t. The stars shone as brightly here as they did in Iowa. It was almost as if the universe was trying to tell her that she could, maybe even did, belong here. Maybe she wasn’t as out of place as she’d thought. Maybe this could work. Maybe she did fit in L.A. In this world. Maybe…someone…wasn’t as far out of her league as she’d originally thought.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
She glanced up and couldn’t stop herself from smiling at the man standing over her. “How many pennies you got?”
Jax dug in his pocket and came up empty. “None.”
She nodded slowly. “Might want to make another offer then.”
He sat on the chair next to her. “A truth for a truth.”
Her smile faltered a bit. “That sounds more dangerous than enlightening.”
He reached for her notebook.
“Really?” She grabbed it back. “Are there no boundaries in this house?”
“Play it.” He nodded toward the page he’d glimpsed.
She shook her head.
“Come on, Ken.”
“It’s not ready.”
He smirked as he grabbed her guitar. She didn’t let anyone touch her guitar, but she didn’t hesitate in letting him nestle the instrument in his lap. He jutted his chin toward the notebook, and she bit her lip before turning it toward him.
The song she’d been playing endlessly in her head filled her ears, somehow sounding even better with Jax plucking the strings.
He squinted a bit before giving her a lopsided grin. “You have terrible handwriting.”
“I’ve been told.”
But then he started singing her words, the lyrics she’d written…not exactly about Jax, but she couldn’t deny he inspired them. A shiver ran through her entire body and settled in her stomach. She couldn’t look at him. She skimmed the city lights as her heart pounded so loud she could barely hear his smooth voice singing a plea to be let down easy.
As he neared the end of what she’d written, she drew a breath to give herself the courage to look at him.
“This should be a duet,” he said, playing more notes than she’d written.
She lifted her brows before laughing. “Whatever.”
He gestured toward her notebook. “You sing the first verse, we’ll both sing the chorus, and then let me sing the next verse.”
He started over, and she did her best to ignore the camera. They were easy to forget, but always seemed to catch her eye in the nick of time. She was about to swoon at the thought of them singing a duet—her duet. Because he was right, this song would make an amazing duet. Mostly because as she wrote it, she heard his voice in her head. The slight movement of the camera reminded her to keep her cool.
She starting singing and trying to act like this wasn’t the most amazing moment of her life. She was sitting under the stars, looking over Los Angeles as Jax Landry played her guitar so they could sing together. She wasn’t even in awe at the location or the fact that this was Jax Landry. She was taken aback for completely different reasons.
When their voices blended over the heartbreaking chorus, she had no choice but to look at him. And that was the moment she knew she was in even more trouble than she’d thought. She was falling hard for this man, which was more terrifying than anything else she’d done in the last few months.
Because when Kendra Michaels fell, she never seemed to land on her feet.
“Damn it,” Jax said the second he was alone in his room. Sinking into the plush chair that faced the window, he ran his fingers through his hair.
This was bad. This was so bad.
He shouldn’t have sat with Kendra. He shouldn’t have sung her song. And he sure as hell shouldn’t have suggested they try it as a duet. The words scratched out in her crooked handwriting had hit him right in the heart. Hearing the words from her mouth seemed like she was singing to his soul. The warmth of her voice in soothed broken pieces of himself better left untouched.
Letting a heavy breath out, he’d swear he could see what was coming a mile away.
As soon as the producers saw that footage, they were going to air it and the little group of fans he and Kendra had run into on the beach would be nothing compared to what was coming.
Not just that, but he had no doubt someone at his record company was going to get the brilliant idea to buy Ken’s song and have them record a professional version and release it. Which was going to just get this snowball rolling even faster.
He was in over his head. How the hell had this happened? This was supposed to be an easy way to get his career back on track, not another disaster in the making.
Sinking in the chair, he wondered how he could possibly get out of this now. And if he even wanted to.
Looking into that woman’s eyes as they sang together lit a spark in him he hadn’t felt in a long time. She was special. Not just her voice or her naivety, but there was something about her that was calling out to him. Her heart seemed to be as battered as his. Two broken down people not even realizing they needed fixed.
Something out of a love song.
He scoffed at the thought. Because it was too real. Too true. And he could no longer deny it.
If he didn’t know better, he’d think Kendra had written that song about him. About them. If they could ever talk, really talk, they’d probably say something like what she’d written.
I like you. I want to be with you. But I’m pretty sure this is going to rip my heart out.
That was the gist of her lyrics. And she was right.
He could hardly hide how much he wanted to know her better. But that wasn’t going to end well. For either of them. Especially if he didn’t find a way to let her know they were pawns in the producer’s ratings game.
If she ever found out, she’d think he’d been deceiving her, and he couldn’t deny it.
Kendra started to stand, planning to leave since her session with Jax had ended, but he lifted his hand, and she sank back in the chair. She waited, but he didn’t look at her right away. Her heart dropped to her stomach. She’d been waiting for the “you’re nice, but I don’t like you that way” speech. It was coming now. She was certain.
Instead, he leaned back and gave her a smooth smile that warmed her soul and immediately put her at ease.
“You got me writing.”
She creased her brow. “What?”
“I haven’t written a song in about two years, Kenny. But I sat down and I wrote the rest of our song.”
“Your song. I couldn’t get it out of my head last night, so I wrote the last verse. You don’t have to use it. I don’t expect you to, actually. But I wrote it. And that’s what counts. That’s what matters to me.”
“Let’s hear it.”
He blushed. Jax Landry literally blushed. “I don’t…”
“Hey. You started this. Finish it.”
After a few erratic heartbeats, she was certain he was going to refuse again, but he chuckled.
“You’re right. I did start this. Okay. You don’t happen to have the notebook.”
“I don’t need it.” She settled her guitar on her leg and started playing the song she’d already memorized. She sang and he joined in at the appropriate parts. Then she shut her mouth and let him finish their song. She could barely breathe by the time he reached the last note. She was a good songwriter. She never questioned that. But what Jax did with the last verse of her song. She’d never be that good.
“Not bad, I guess,” she teased.
He laughed as he nudged her knee.
She let her smile soften. “You just put me to shame in my own song. You know that, right?”
“I’d like to work on this with you. If you don’t mind.”
She couldn’t stop her eyes from widening. “Really?”
“But…I mean…what does that mean?”
He smirked. “That means Jax Landry just asked Kendra Michaels to let him in on her project because he knows a damn good thing when he hears it.”
She held her breath. “Um…” Looking down, she blew her breath out. “I want that. I do.”
“But…maybe after all this? Can we talk about it after all this? I don’t want anybody to think that… you know…” She glanced at the camera. “You know.”
He nodded and a strange look flickered in his eyes for a moment. “Yeah. I do know. It’ll keep, Ken. Don’t you worry. We’ll talk about it when all this is over.”
“Good. Thanks, Jax. Not just for the lesson, but everything.”
He nodded. “Get on out of here. Our time is up.”
She gave him one last smile before heading out of the studio. She was so wrapped up in the fact that Jax wanted to write a song with her that she nearly ran into Dave, one of the producers. She didn’t care for him. He looked at her in a way she couldn’t decipher, but it wasn’t good. He wanted something from her, and she didn’t know what. It wasn’t sexual or anything like that, which concerned her even more. She could ward off unwanted advances. What she couldn’t do was defend herself against the unknown, so she’d done her best to avoid him. Even now, she gave him a curt nod and kept moving.
He smiled that venomous smile of his as she slid through the door.
“Jax,” he said as he stepped into the studio. “Just the man I was looking for.”
The door closed before Kendra could hear more, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t want anything to do with Dave. He was forgotten as quickly as the door clicked closed behind him.
Jax wanted to work with her. Jax thought she was talented enough to work with her. Nothing could bring her down now.
Jax sighed as he gestured for her to get in the car. “I’m sure.”
She slid into the back seat and he dropped in beside her. She watched the cameraman in the front turn and focus the lens in their direction. Something was off, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Jax almost seemed disgruntled to be spending time with her even though this was his idea.
He suggested they get out of the house and clear their minds before settling on the next song she should sing. It was a complete break from their routine: she picked a song, he challenged her, and they bickered a bit before one of them finally gave in. She was torn on who had given in more often. It was probably pretty fairly split down the middle. He’d suggested they get out of the studio even before she had a chance to tell him she’d like to sing “I Love Rock N Roll” for the ‘80s show next week.
He’d probably seen it coming though. She couldn’t sing another Heart or Stevie Nicks song, and Joan Jett was perfect for her grungy, gravelly voice. She expected him to put up quite the fight about her staying in her comfort zone and all that. He’d probably suggest something by Cyndi Lauper or Madonna.
She looked out the car window as the driver pulled away from the house. Taking a breath, Kendra blurted out her idea and why he should go along.
He nodded. “Yeah. That works.”
“Okay,” she said on a half laugh. “That’s it? What is going on with you?”
“Something’s bothering you,” she said quietly. “Has been for days.”
He looked at the camera, as he had every single time she’d brought up his foul mood and distracted mind. She frowned. They would never be away from the prying eyes of the network and he was using that as an excuse not to tell her what was bothering him.
Digging in her bag, she pulled out the notebook she used to scratch down song lyrics and grocery lists. The producers had all their phones, or she would have just texted the man. Instead, she scribbled a note: What is going on with you?
She handed him the notebook and pen. He frowned at her, so she cocked a brow and shoved them toward him again.
With a dramatic sigh, Jax took the notebook and scribbled out a note.
I want to be alone with you so we can talk.
She bit her lip as her heart did a little flutter but then dove to the pit of her stomach. Good talk or bad talk?
He read her note and responded. Every day getting to know you talk. Without the cameras.
She looked at the cameraman and sank back. Shall we get “lost” in the crowd somewhere?
He chuckled as he wrote YES! and underlined it three times.
Getting lost in the crowd wasn’t nearly as easy for Jax as it used to be. As soon as they climbed out of the car at the beach, people stopped and stared and whispered. Instead of the usual “Look, it’s Jax Landry,” he heard “Look, it’s them! Jax and Kendra!”
Perfect. He’d been down this road before. Kendra, however, hadn’t and she looked like she wanted to run. He took her elbow and pulled her along. “Gotta get in the crowd to get lost in the crowd,” he reminded her under his breath.
He didn’t miss, nor did he mind, the way she stood close to him as the number of notebooks shoved in their faces grew. “Smile and sign,” he instructed as he dove into his role of superstar. He hated how that familiar feeling washed over him. How easy it was to slip into this façade. But this time was different—this time was better. Kendra was with him looking terrified behind her frozen smile. The only good part was the crowd was closing in and pushing the cameraman out of the way.
“So, ladies,” he said as he scribbled his name on a napkin for someone. “Remember that time we ran off from the cameraman.”
“That was so romantic,” a girl with braces said as she put her hand to her heart and rolled her eyes back.
Kendra started to speak, undoubtedly to put an end to the notion of it being romantic, but Jax spoke over her. “Would you mind helping us get away this time?”
Eyes lit with excitement and squeals of “OMG!” made his ears want to bleed. “You guys just stay here,” he said as he grabbed Kendra’s hand.
“Wait,” one girl pleaded. “Can I get a picture of you guys together?”
Jax slid his arm around Kendra’s shoulders and pulled her close. Putting his head to hers, he smiled in the charming way he’d been taught by all those photographers.
“Oh my gosh,” someone gushed. “They are so cute.”
Kendra again started to speak, but Jax gave her a gentle shove. “Okay. We’re sneaking out on that side. You guys stay here for about three minutes to give us a head start. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” the chorus of fans sang.
Taking Kendra’s hand again, Jax pulled her through the gushing young women toward the boardwalk. Though other people noticed them, he kept a steady pace, not stopping for any more autographs or selfies with fans. He had a purpose, a mission, and he wasn’t giving up until he put some distance between them and the show.
“Jax,” Kendra said with a breathless laugh. “Slow down.”
“Here.” He pulled her into one of his favorite little restaurants.
She stepped inside and inhaled. Grabbing his arm, she moaned and looked at him. “Do you smell that?”
“Best burgers I’ve found in LA.”
“I’m going to eat them all.”
He laughed as he gestured toward the end of the line. “Let’s start with one and go from there.”
He watched her as she eyed the menu, looking over the various offerings. She was so damned amazing. Not just her looks, but everything. He couldn’t deceive her. He couldn’t.
She looked at him before he could tell her the secret he’d been carrying for days. “What do you get?”
He stuttered for a moment. “The double bacon with everything and large fries.”
She sighed, a big contented sound, before looking at him. Then her smile fell a bit. “What?”
“I need to tell you something. Something that happened after last week’s show.”
Her smile was completely gone by the time he finished. “What?”
He took a breath, but before he could tell her about the position he’d been put into—flirt with Kendra or she’d be kicked off the show—the cameraman reappeared at the door of the restaurant. “Damn it,” he whispered.
She put her hand to his arm, but then turned and noticed. “I knew something happened. You’ve been so out of sorts.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he whispered.
He nodded her forward when the person in front of them moved along. “You order onion rings and I’ll get fries so we can split.”
She grinned. “Brilliant.” She stepped forward to order and he looked back. The cameraman shrugged and tried to look sympathetic but Jax suspected he wasn’t the least bit sorry for stopping him from confessing the plot to use his connection to Kendra as a ratings ploy.
Kendra simply smirked as Randi went on and on about her “date” with Jax. He took her for sushi. That amused Kendra endlessly considering Jax had told her that he didn’t like sushi. He said that right before shoving his burger in his mouth and dripping ketchup down his chin. Ketchup that Kendra had reached out and wiped away without thinking twice about it.
She still wanted to crawl under a rock over that one.
But the way he’d looked at her had made the embarrassment worthwhile. Damn it. She wanted to deny it, but she couldn’t. There was something there. Something she couldn’t explain. Something she couldn’t understand.
Something that was going to break her heart and get her into a world of trouble on this show.
“We decided I’m going to sing ‘Let’s Get Physical.’” Randi’s tone clearly intended to insinuate something.
“Because he thinks you need the exercise?” Shera asked without missing a beat, causing Kendra to chuckle.
Randi smirked her own condescending smile. “Go ahead and tell yourself that,” she said before sauntering off.
“She is such a ho.”
“She’s certainly trying,” Kendra said as she scribbled in her notebook.
“What are you working on?”
Kendra glanced up and felt heat settle over her cheeks. She flipped the book over. “Nothing.”
Shera immediately grinned mischievously. “Kendra. Show me.”
“No. It’s just…”
Shera nabbed the notebook and darted off before Kendra could stop her. “Shera! Does privacy mean anything to you?”
She ran after her, catching up to her by the pool outside. Shera had stopped running and no longer looked amused. Shoving the notebook into Kendra’s chest, she stormed back into the house. Ken didn’t have to look at the page she’d been doodling on. She’d memorized the notes she and Jax had passed in the car. She didn’t know why she was reading them now, or drawing flowers in the margin of the page. But she knew she should have torn that page out and ripped it to shreds before anyone else saw it.
“What happened?” Jax asked coming up to her.
She closed the notebook before he could see that she’d obsessively drawn on the page with his handwriting. “I think she read more into something than she should have. I’ll talk to her.”
She smiled and nodded, leaving him to watch after her as she left. She didn’t have to glance back to know that he hadn’t turned around. She could see his reflection in the glass door. He stood there watching her leave and the cameraman behind him was recording every moment of it. Upstairs, she found Shera on her bed, digging through her candy stash.
“Seriously? You’re pissed over a couple of notes.”
“I was teasing before, you know. About how Jax likes you. But it’s true isn’t it?” She stopped shuffling lollipops and licorice and looked up. “Do you like him or are you just manipulating him like everyone is saying?”
“What?” she dropped on Shera’s bed.
Tossing her bag aside, Shera narrowed her eyes. “You don’t seem like the type to sleep your way to the top, Ken, but that’s how it looks.”
“I’m not sleeping with Jax!”
“Yet.” She reached into her bag and blindly pulled out a piece of butterscotch. She unwrapped the candy and popped it into her mouth. “None of us stand a chance if you’re involved with him. Not even me. You know that, right?”
Kendra looked down. “I’m not involved with him, Sher.”
“Do you want to be?”
“No,” she said. “I mean, I like him and all but…not like that.” She was lying. She knew she was lying. But Shera smiled and hugged her, whispering her thanks Kendra’s ear as the camera zoomed in on the moment.
Jax hadn’t been kidding when he threatened to make the theme of the next week Country Western. The choice was supposed to be punishment to the entire group for the drama of the week before. That included Kendra—only because he couldn’t single her out—but he should have known better.
Country Western and guitar went hand in hand. She even managed to get around the whole cowgirl thing. He should have seen that coming. “No.”
“What do you mean no?” Kendra demanded.
He frowned at her. She was so damned resistant to branching out. “Darlin’, you are trying me.”
She laughed. “How so? This is Country Western week. Can you get more Country Western than Johnny Cash?”
“You mean The Man in Black?” He gestured toward her black jeans and T-shirt. “Way to push yourself, Ken.”
Grabbing her guitar, she gave him a defiant look before strumming the strings and belting out the first line of “Bird on a Wire.” He sank back in his chair and listened. Damn if she wasn’t singing one of the most beautiful renditions of the song he’d ever heard. Soulful and humble and filled with the pain of someone begging for forgiveness. The natural grain in her voice added a depth to the words and brought goosebumps to his skin. Damn it, he couldn’t tell her not to perform the song. This would definitely get her into the next round.
When she was done, she looked at him and grinned. “That was my mom’s favorite song. I sang it at her funeral, and I haven’t sung it since. So. It’s growth. Even if you can’t see it.”
He smiled. “All right. Johnny Cash, it is.”
“I thought you’d see it my way.”
If she kept serenading him like that, she could make him see anything her way. Yeah, he was in a little bit of trouble here. He wasn’t going to play favorites, but he couldn’t help but feel that Kendra was the most talented—and most deserving—member of his team. And that was going to skew his views whether he intended to or not.
This was a hell of a predicament.
“What?” she asked, pulling him from his thoughts.
Her lip ticked up in half a smile. “You’re staring off into space like you don’t know how to tell me my dog died.”
He chuckled. “You have a dog back home?”
“Then I guess I got out of that one.”
Her smile faded. “What are you thinking, Jax?”
“You can do this. You can make it to the end. But I’m worried I may not be the one to get you there.”
She creased her brow and he wasn’t sure if she was confused or hurt. Maybe a little of both. “Why?”
He drew a breath. “I don’t think I’m pushing you as hard as you should be pushed.”
She fell back in her chair, letting the guitar rest on its back across her thighs. “You want me to do Dolly Parton?”
Jax laughed. “No.”
“I’ve practiced ‘Jolene’ a few times. Want to hear it?”
“No. You picked the right song. You were born to sing that song.”
She chuckled. “That could be a slight overstatement, but I’m glad you see it my way. So why do you look so stressed?”
He subtly tilted his head toward the camera and she lifted her brows, letting him know she got it. They weren’t talking about this in front of the cameras. But when weren’t they in front of the cameras? And after the tension their last attempt to have alone time caused, he wasn’t tempting fate again. He couldn’t risk Kendra taking any more heat than she had already. He didn’t want her getting punished by the team or the judges because of he was inexplicably drawn to her.
Instead of responding, she tilted her guitar back up and starting singing again. Refocusing on the task at hand, he put his internal debate on the backburner and started doing his job—coaching his team member so she could give the best performance possible.
Kendra wished she could take back the off the cuff confession she’d made to Jax. Sometimes she simply forgot that cameras were monitoring her every move and catching her every word. But she’d said it. She’d told him she’d sung “Bird on a Wire” for her mother’s funeral and now the producers were determined to hear the story for the pre-recorded intro to her performance.
She’d seen people breaking down on these shows a thousand times and always rolled her eyes at the outpouring of emotion, but there she was, sitting in the spotlight with tears in her eyes, trying to hold back the emotional storm as she remembered her mother lying in a hospital bed.
Her sister had emailed a few photos that undoubtedly would be spliced in over her tale of her mother’s cancer battle.
She hated this, damn it, but as she started talking about the promise she’d made her mother to keep singing, the tears that had she’d been fighting won and ran down her cheeks before she could stop them.
“Sorry,” she whispered as she turned from the camera as a thousand contestants had done before. “This is still a little raw.”
“I think that’s enough,” Jax said from somewhere.
She sighed as she wiped her cheeks even faster, trying to pull herself together before he saw any more of this mess. But then he was kneeling in front of her, a handful of tissues at the ready.
She laughed slightly as she took one. “What are you doing here?”
He frowned as he looked over his shoulder then leaned close enough to whisper. “I’d say that I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they were waiting for this. They knew I couldn’t let you sit here and cry.”
She rolled her eyes. One slip, one unintentional moment between them had started a craze that there was a budding romance. Though Kendra and the other contestants were cut off from the Internet and most of the outside world, when she’d called her sister to ask for photos, she’d said the possibility of romance was all anyone was talking about—at home and online.
The producers were going to stoke this for all they could. The thing was, she wasn’t that upset about them trying to put her and Jax in these situations together. She was more worried about upsetting her teammates or getting Jax kicked off the show for abusing his power—or whatever—as a judge.
“Jerks,” she whispered in return.
He smiled and she wiped her face. Sitting back, she sighed. “You know I always thought those people who sit in front of the camera sobbing were looking for sympathy, but damned if you guys don’t know how to twist emotions around.” Taking a deep breath, she exhaled. “I’m okay. I’m good. Let’s finish this interview so you can break the next contestant.” She grabbed Jax’s hand before he could stand. “Thanks, but I’m okay. I can get through this.”
He nodded, stuffed another tissue in her hand, and disappeared behind the bright lights with all the other people in the room. Kendra took a breath and nodded at the interviewer, letting him know she was ready to keep going.
Jax smiled. He’d hoped Kendra would sneak down for another midnight snack. Closing the refrigerator door as she stopped in the kitchen doorway, he did his best to hide his excitement. “Brutal day,” he said as he lifted up two beers. “Thought you could use this.”
She smiled in return and his chest did that stupid fluttering thing that tended to happen when he was around her. “I’ve been through worse, but I never turn down a good drink.”
“I am. Thanks. I don’t suppose you managed to get any more junk food into the house. I tried at dinner, but I can’t seem to stuff down my emotions with carrots.”
He held up a hand as if to quiet her, then looked around, making sure they were alone—as alone as anyone could get in a house filled with cameramen, anyway. Then he went into the pantry and produced a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa.
“Perfection,” she said sitting at the counter.
He poured the salsa into a bowl as she popped the tops on their drinks. He sat next to her and gestured for her dig in.
She dipped a chip and shoved the entire thing her mouth. “Wow. That’s good.”
Jax nodded. “I had to flown in from Texas.”
She stopped chewing and stared at him. Finally, she brushed her hands together. “You had salsa flown in from Texas?”
“And the chips. Good, huh?”
She laughed. “I didn’t know you could fly in chips and salsa.”
He grinned as he reached for the chips. “I should have kept that bit to myself.”
“No. No. I’m glad you did. This is a hell of a lot better than hummus and celery.”
“I just didn’t know people actually did that.”
He chuckled as a twinge of embarrassment started creeping in. Kendra was real. She was an everyday person. He hadn’t been in a long time, and in that moment, he realized just how far he’d come from the Southern boy who used to bale hay for his grandfather every summer. But in a way he hadn’t. “One of the first things I did when I got some money was buy my mama a restaurant. She’s the best cook I know.”
“This is hers?”
He nodded. “She made this batch special for me.”
Her smile widened and some of her disbelief faded into something tender. “My mom use to make this coffee cake with candied pecan crumble. That cake would just melt in your mouth.” Her eyes grew sad. “I never learned how to bake that cake and she never wrote down the recipe. I wish I had stopped living my mess of a life for just five minutes and asked her to write it down.”
She closed her eyes, but he saw the sheen of tears there before she did. Putting his hand on hers, he whispered his condolences and made a mental note to ask his mom to send Kendra a cake. After the contest had ended.
With a shake her head, she opened her eyes and smiled. “Tell me more about your mom.”
Leaning on the counter, he chuckled before delving into tales from his childhood.
Kendra took a deep breath as she stood just off-stage waiting for her turn to perform. Martin had shooed her teammates away from the screens, making sure there was no chance Randi could once again cause a scene based on what the producers had cut together. Unfortunately, Ken had to watch it. A two-minute intro with her talking about growing up and her mother’s death, Jax comforting her with a handful of tissues, a cute little quip from her to wrap it all up, and then the host bellowed out her name.
Taking one more deep, steadying breath, she walked out to the mic.
The emotions hit her hard. Nerves. Grief. Fear. She looked down, focusing on the guitar in her hand. She had to play the first chord before the backup band would kick in and her performance could being. Until she did that, the entire stadium was silent.
Save for the murmuring starting to come from the darkness where the audience was watching.
She lifted her hand, but couldn’t quite bring herself to touch the strings. Another breath, another moment to prepare.
Turning, she looked up at the big screen behind her. The one filled with a giant image of her with her arm draped around her mom’s shoulder. The urge to cry hit her. The urge to run. The urge to hide like she always did when things got too hard.
“You got this, Kenny,” Jax called from the judge’s table. His words were followed by sporadic cheering from the darkness.
Holding up her hand, she silently requested the audience quiet down. They did.
She looked offstage to where Martin had a clear sense of panic on his face. “When I would sing this for my mom, I didn’t have a band or a guitar.” She lifted the strap over her head and sat her instrument in the stand. “It was just me. So, um…” glancing back at the band, “if y’all don’t mind. Just sit this one out.”
Martin waved his hands, dismissing her request—this wasn’t how they had rehearsed her performance all week—but the band was already stepping back from their instruments.
Kendra closed her eyes, braced herself, and let the song loose knowing it wasn’t the most polished rendition she could have done. But as she sang, she didn’t care. She was thinking of her mother, of summers spent on a farm in Iowa, of the smells of coffee cake and sneaking bites before dinner hoping she wouldn’t get caught. She pictured herself sitting at the table, shucking corn while singing with her mom, fighting to replace the memory of singing this song while dressed in black and standing next to a casket.
The last note fell, and she could have sworn she heard Mama say, “That’s the way, Kenny. That’s how it’s sung.”
Then the sound of applause startled her. She jolted–she’d forgotten the audience was there.
Sighing heavily, she bowed just a bit and waited for the judge’s responses. B.G. Daze, the rapper, clapped and told her she’d done more with that one song than she’d done all season. Colbee Hardy wiped her eyes and said she couldn’t remember the last time someone on this show had made her cry. But Jax smiled and simply said, “You did her proud, Kenny.”
She choked on what was probably her hundredth bout of tears that week and whispered her thanks before leaving stage.
Jax couldn’t wait to catch up with his team. They’d all kicked butt with this week’s theme. Sure, he thought Kendra did the best, but he was proud of all of them. This wasn’t the easiest week for any of them, but they’d all pulled it off.
He had just gotten backstage, stripped of all the microphones and gadgets he had to wear while sitting in the judge’s chair, but before he could meet his team, the same producer stopped him that had stood in his way last week.
“Come on, man,” Jax said. “What now, Dave?”
“Come with me.” Dave led Jax to a small room away from all the other hosts.
Martin, the fidgety assistant who kept his team on track was there, and Jax’s stomach rolled a bit. He was wondering how long before they put an end to his and Kendra’s late night meetings in the kitchen. Looked like the ax was falling more quickly than he’d anticipated.
“Sit.” Dave gestured to the table where Martin was.
“Look, guys,” he started, hoping to work his way out of being told he could no longer have one-on-ones at midnight over junk food. “I know we’re not allowed to pick favorites, and that’s not what’s happening here.”
“What is happening?” Dave asked. “Between you and Miss Michaels?”
Jax creased his brow. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. She’s nice. That’s it.” He looked between Dave and Martin. “That’s it,” he insisted when they cast him disbelieving looks.
Dave slid a folder across the table and waited for Jax to open it. “This is just a sampling of what’s happening online, Jax.”
“Mandry? What the hell kind of stupidity is that?”
“That’s the pet name for you and Kendra being tossed around social media. You two have a following.”
Jax leaned back and sighed. He’d been down this road before. As soon as he and his ex-wife made their relationship public—back before it all turned to crap—they’d had a following, too. Diehard fans who turned against him as soon as the relationship crumbled. “Great.”
“They want to see more of you two. We monitored the social sites during her performance tonight. Off. The. Charts. They want you guys together.”
Jax shook his head. “No.”
“What do you mean no?” Dave asked.
“I’m not putting Ken through that. This has been hard enough on her already. She doesn’t like being center of attention and this,” he shoved the file, “is way worse than just being a favored contestant. These people will pick her apart if she even thinks about straying from how they think she should act. She’s not cut out for that.”
“That’s the price, Jax. She came here looking for fame. Fame comes with fanbases. Some of them more finicky than others.”
“Yeah, trust me, I know. That’s why I’m here, remember? One of those finicky fanbases crushed my career when my marriage fell apart. I’m not putting Kendra through that.”
Dave put his palms on the table. “I don’t think you’re hearing me, Jax. Fans equal ratings. Ratings equal keeping this show on the air. This wasn’t expected, but this is what’s happening and we’re running with it.”
He lifted his brows. “We’re running with it?”
“Martin will make sure there are more opportunities for you and Kendra to have those deep conversations your fans love so much. We want to see you guys opening up, getting to know each other. Running off from the cameras for a few minutes alone. They loved that.”
Jax sat back and sighed. “I’m not toying with her emotions so you can get your share of the Nielsens.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” Dave asked. “Toying with her?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you won’t be now. Look, I’m not suggesting you lie to her or manipulate her. Just keep doing what you’re doing. With our blessing.”
“Does she know you’ve given your blessing?”
“No.” Dave stood upright and crossed his arms. “And she won’t.”
“How am I supposed to be fair to the rest of my team if you want me focused on Kendra?”
“We’re not worried about your team,” Dave said flatly.
Martin leaned forward and smiled, and Jax was certain he heard a rattler give a warning in his mind. That distinct sound that let someone know they were in danger. “Look, Jax, I’m here to help with the team. That’s my job. I’ll make sure everyone gets their sessions in with you. I’ll make sure you have all the time you need to help them. Let me worry about all that. You just focus on seeing where this thing with Kendra is going. If it’s going anywhere at all. You know, maybe you two are just meant to be really good friends. If so, that’s okay. It is. Really. We’ll support that. But you deserve to see, don’t you? After all the two of you have been through, you deserve this chance. Take it. We’re giving it to you.”
Jax laughed softly, but he wasn’t amused. He was stunned. “And if I don’t. If I say thanks but no thanks?”
Dave narrowed his eyes a bit. “Then I’d say it’s probably best to get rid of a contestant who is manipulating a judge to gain favors. Wouldn’t you?”
“You’d send her home?” Jax clarified.
Dave nodded once. One definitive move.
Another unamused laugh as Jax shook his head. “Fine. What do you want me to do?”
The tension in the van from the studio back to the house was so thick a chainsaw wouldn’t have been able to cut through it. No one had said a word, but the silence said so much. The cameramen had caught enough of the conversation between Kendra and Jax to make the moment look compromising. And the producers had aired it. And everyone in the contest, including all her teammates, had seen it.
Unlike the previous week, Jax didn’t ride back to the house with his team. He stayed behind at the studio for some kind of promotional something or rather. She hadn’t really paid attention as the other contestants chattered on about it. She’d been too busy avoiding Randi’s piercing glare. While some of the other contestants cast hard glances her way, Randi seemed to be the most furious about what the show had flashed on screen right before her performance—Kendra and Jax running inside the house, locking the cameramen out, so they could have a moment alone. Since the scene played through the window, their conversation couldn’t be heard, but his tenderness as he wiped her tears and encouraged her to let go of the past were there for all to see.
Shera sat next to her, as always, but even she seemed colder than usual to Kendra. When Kendra asked how her performance went, she was met with a curt answer. “Fine.”
At the house, Kendra headed straight for the stairs, not wanting to engage in the brewing confrontation, but Randi beat her to the stairs.
“Not so fast, Goth Queen.”
Kendra pressed her lips together. “Move.”
“What the hell kind of game are you playing?”
“Not cool putting the moves on Jax like that,” Pete said. Pete was the most easygoing out of the group. His Dean Martin wanna-be attitude meant he was more concerned with his hair and drinking than the constantly underlying drama of the team.
“I didn’t put the moves on Jax,” Kendra defended. She looked at Shera, her only real friend in the house, and felt a gut-punch when even she looked angry. “I didn’t.”
“We all saw the video,” Randi snapped. “Your little woe-is-me act was so transparent.”
Kendra scoffed. She hadn’t put on any kind of act, let alone one that would make her look more pathetic than she already was. But she wasn’t going to defend herself. Shoving her way past Randi, she made it upstairs and went straight to the bathroom where she used facial wipes to erase the layers of makeup that had been applied to her face.
When she jerked the door open, intent on finding something more comfortable to wear, Shera was sitting on her bed. Her expression reflected a mixture of confusion and anger and, if Kendra was reading correctly, a sense of betrayal.
She didn’t care what anyone there thought—except maybe Shera. Kendra headed for her dresser as she said, “I didn’t know he was outside when I went out. I needed some fresh air. All this was getting to me. I refused to tell him what was bugging me with all the cameras on us.” She slammed her drawer after finding her favorite pair of sweatpants. Facing her friend, she shrugged. “He pulled me inside and shut the cameramen out thinking they wouldn’t have anything to air if they didn’t have audio. Obviously, he underestimated the producer’s desire to cause drama.”
“Drama equals ratings, Ken.”
“I wasn’t putting the moves on Jax.”
“Okay,” she said softly. Then she smiled. “Not that I’d blame you. The boy is hot.”
Kendra laughed softly. “He was being nice. As a coach should. But that’s all there was to it. They just played it up. Like you said, for ratings.”
“I believe you. And I think the guys do too. Randi, on the other hand, is on the warpath. She’s tearing into Jax right now.”
Kendra opened her eyes wide. “What?”
“Randi went into a tirade after you came up. Jax walked in and she started in on him. He made us all leave before she got too far.”
She’d barely finished sighing before the door opened and then slammed shut. Randi narrowed her eyes at Kendra, but walked in without a word. The silence was tense as Randi stomped across the room to the bathroom and slammed that door also.
Shera smiled. “That went well.”
Kendra rolled her eyes and flopped onto her bed.
Jax walked into the silent dining room. “Let’s get this over with.” He didn’t have to elaborate on what he meant. The elephant was crushing everyone in the room. “I didn’t do for Kendra what I wouldn’t do for any of you. You’re my team. I’m your coach. You have doubts, I’m here to push you through them. Not all conversations are intended for national television. Kendra’s concerns were private, and I respect that. So will you. All of you.” He looked at Randi, leaving no doubt who he was talking to. “When you have doubts, and you all will at some point in this process, I’d do the same damn thing for you. Questions?”
He focused on Kendra. She didn’t look relieved by his speech, she looked even more embarrassed. But she’d have to deal with it. He hadn’t intended for it to look like he was playing favorites, but the producers had seen it that way. Some were thrilled, some were furious, and some were latching on to what they perceived as a blooming romance.
“We’ll monitor audience response before telling you how to proceed.” That’s what one of the producers had said during the impromptu meeting after the show had been recorded. The live audience had been split three ways—angry, indifferent, and excited at the prospect of the trouble an on-screen romance would cause.
“What romance?” Jax had insisted. “There is no romance. She was crying. What was I supposed to do?”
His denial was met with skeptical glances and a few knowing smirks.
Seeing Kendra now, he couldn’t deny he felt a connection to her, but most of that was because she was the only person on his team who seemed real. Pete was trapped in the 50s, Randi was so full of herself she couldn’t see anything else, Shera was nice enough but desperate to hang onto her youth, and Dominic spent all his time trying to convince Jax to introduce him one record producer or another despite the restrictions on Jax’s abilities as a coach for the show.
Kendra was the only one who he could talk to about real things. Non-super-star things. That was nice. She was nice. And genuine. And pretty. And easy to talk to. And…
And all the sudden he realized why the producers would think there was more to his relationship with his contestant. He forced his eyes from her to scan the rest of his team. “Glad we got that settled,” he said. “Let’s eat.”
He made sure that he didn’t get in line behind Kendra as the team headed for the buffet the chef had set up. He frowned at the food choices. Grilled chicken. Again. Steamed veggies. Again. What he wouldn’t give for a big ol’ hamburger and some homemade fries. He’d hit the kitchen up after everyone headed upstairs. He didn’t care what the production team thought—this healthy eating wasn’t what all stars wanted.
He’d gladly do a few extra sit ups in exchange for a good meal.
He put enough food on his plate to carry him over for the next few hours and when he sat at the head of the table, he noticed Kendra had sat as far away from him as possible. Good. That was good. It was best to keep some distance between them. But damned if he couldn’t stop glancing her way as he suffered through his meal.
Kendra was starving. Starving. And the smell of whatever was cooking called out to her. She tiptoed her way to the kitchen, determined to find out what was cooking and if there was enough for two.
She rounded the corner and sighed. Jax. Of course it was Jax.
“Don’t slink away,” he said.
She thought she’d gone unnoticed. Easing from the shadows, she frowned with disappointment at seeing only one hamburger in the pan. “I figure it’s best not to be seen alone after today’s debacle.”
“Debacle is a strong word.”
She eased at onto a barstool. “What’d you call it?”
She chuckled, and he grabbed a second plate from the cabinet. “Oh, I don’t…”
“Don’t lie. I know you hate the food here as much as I do.”
She smiled. “I’ve been craving a burger for days.”
“Me too. And pizza. If there had been a single slice of pepperoni in this house, we’d be having a deep dish right now.”
She lifted her brows. “I’m sure someone could smuggle pepperoni in here somehow.”
“I’m going to get a few things added to the menu.”
“Please do. I don’t know how these people live like this.” She inhaled appreciatively as he slid a plate to her with half his burger and fries piled on. “Are you sure?”
He didn’t have to tell her twice. She picked up her half of his sandwich and took a big bite and moaning with pleasure. “Oh my god,” she said around the food in her mouth. “That’s so good.”
He nodded his agreement instead of talking with his mouth full, and she put her hand to her lips.
“Sorry,” she said after swallowing.
He chuckled as he turned to the fridge. He pulled out two beers, popping the tops, before handing her one. “I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
He swallowed a drink before exhaling loudly. “I brought this drama raining down on you. I wasn’t thinking when I pulled you away from the cameras the other night. And I wasn’t thinking when I ran up to hug you after your performance. I was just so damn proud to see you let those walls down, I didn’t think.”
It was her turn to let out a soft laugh. “Drama seems to rain down on me wherever I go, Jax. It’s not you. It’s my karma.”
She let her smile fade a bit as she shook her head. “Sometimes I think I really must have done somebody wrong in my last life.”
He leaned on the counter, pushing his beer aside. “I feel that way sometimes.”
His confession surprised her.
“You kind of have it all, don’t you?”
He shrugged as she shoved a fry in her mouth. “I guess that depends on what you consider ‘it all.’ I have money. I have fame. I have success. I don’t have the woman I thought I loved. I don’t have most of the people I thought were friends. I don’t have a moment of privacy to mourn those things. My life is for show.” He nodded his head to the side to where the cameraman was focused on him. “Twenty-four seven, now. At least for a while. So. I guess to some people I have it all. To me, I lost an awful lot to have a little.”
She gave him half a smile. “It’s hard enough to know who is real when you’re flat broke and barely making it. Must be a thousand times harder when you’re successful.”
“It used to be.” He grabbed his burger again. “I’m getting better at spotting the fakes.”
The wink he gave her seemed to imply he was excluding her from that group but she was too aware of the camera on them and not allowing herself to gush at his charms to ask.
She returned her focus on her fries. “So, um, I was thinking maybe you shouldn’t stand by the deal we made.”
“That I’d sing Stronger if you agreed to make next week classic rock week. I don’t want the team to think you’re cutting me a break, especially after the tension we had today.”
“I agree.” He took a bite, but this time, opted out of the good manners he’d used before and followed her lead by speaking with his mouth full. “I’m thinking I should choose something you’d all hate.”
He chewed thoughtfully for a moment before swallowing. “Country western.”
She cursed and rolled her eyes as he threw his head back and laughed.
October is my favoritest time of year! I love the change of season, hot cocoa by a fire, falling leaves, pumpkins…and of course, Halloween!
Even though I usually write romance, I can’t help but get into a crreeeepy spirit this time of year.
Here is a short free Halloween read for you. This is definitely NOT romance. If you don’t like creepy things, maybe don’t read this one.
**Even though this is a free short story, please don’t use/copy without my permission. If you know someone who would like to read this story, direct them to my website.**
The Lemon Drop
by Marci Boudreaux
My mother’s voice echoed through my head. “Never take candy from strangers.”
Her face, sweet and kind, filled my mind. I remember how she used to crease her brow as she gave me stern warnings borne from maternal worry. When I left for college, she told me not to walk alone at night. Not to leave my drink unattended at a party.
But she forgot to remind me to never take candy from strangers.
I wish she were here now.
But, I’m alone. Stumbling toward my car. Fumbling for my keys. Feeling like I was leaving a frat party instead of a gas station. The parking lot reminded me of a dystopian sunset—the area was encased in the orange glow of the low-pressure sodium lights high in the posts. Any moment zombies could come dragging themselves from the darkness at the edges of the lot. Rabid dogs could come charging. Giant spiders could descend from above and wrap me in a web.
Any of these things could happen and they’d make so much more sense to me than the reality of what was happening.
“Here,” the old man behind the counter had said as he handed me my change, “have a candy.” He had held his wrinkled hand out. His fingers had trembled as I looked over the various colored treats wrapped in clear cellophane.
After a moment, I chose a yellow piece.
He had smiled and winked. “Lemon. That’s my favorite.”
I had unwrapped the little lemon drop and popped it in my mouth before gathering my cold bottle of water and bag of salty chips. I still had an hour before I made it home for a long weekend and needed a snack to hold me over. Mom would have food waiting, she always did, but I needed sustenance now.
The citrus flavor burst over my taste buds and saliva instantly began to flow. It was much more sour than I expected. So tart that my tongue felt a little numb. I swallowed as my mouth filled with spit.
Holy cow! What kind of candy is this? I thought as I stepped off the sidewalk and stumbled. My water fell from my hand and rolled way. I watched as it seemed to go in slow motion. My body was starting to feel disjointed—like medicine head, only ten times worse.
Then I heard Mom say in the echoes of my mind, “Never take candy from strangers.”
I opened my mouth and spit along with what was left of the candy slid down my chin. My keys. Where were my keys? Oh god. Where? Where did I put them?
I patted along my pockets, but my hands felt like water balloons. Every time I touched myself, tingling waves rolled through my fingers, through my palms, and up my wrists.
I reached my car door but couldn’t open it. My keys. Where are my damn keys?
Like my hands, my legs began to feel too heavy, too thick. I tried to keep walking. If I couldn’t drive away, I could run. I could run to the road. Flag someone down. But who? This road was the shortcut. The country road. The out of the way, no traffic road.
Falling, I blinked when my cheek hit the pavement. That should have hurt, but other than that crazy wave of pins and needles, I felt nothing.
The old man kneeled in front of me. I could see it now. The menace behind the crooked smile. The filth of his teeth. The crazy in his dark eyes.
I hadn’t seen it before. How had I missed that?
“Yeah. Those little lemon ones are my favorites,” he said.
I tried to scream but my throat was too tight. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t make a sound. But I did feel the burning hot sensation of a tear leaving the corner of my eye and trailing down the side of my nose.
He scooped me up off the ground. A bitter scent filled my nostrils reminding me of when I was a kid and my dad would come in from working on his truck. Oil or some other fluid. I couldn’t place it. I’d always hated it, but now I inhaled deeply.
My dad was kind. He was gentle. He’d sit next to me at the kitchen table and coach me through my algebra. Even now, in college, I’d call him when I was stuck on a problem. I wanted to call him now.
Dad. Help. I think I’m in trouble. Daddy?
He didn’t come. He didn’t help. As the old man eased me down, the dampness of more tears trailed down the sides of my face and landed in my ears. They tickled as they pooled there but I couldn’t reach up and wipe them away. I couldn’t move any more now than I could when I hit the ground.
I stared up at a high ceiling. There wasn’t much light, but it seemed like a garage—the kind a mechanic works out of. There was a different smell now. I couldn’t place this one. Metallic. But not oil or transmission fluid. Not anything I recalled smelling on Dad.
It was almost…almost like…blood.
I gagged. The taco from the drive through I gone through before leaving the city lurched up.
“Oh, careful now,” the old man said and turned me on my side. “Don’t want to drown in your own vomit.”
My body jerked involuntarily as he tilted my head over the side of the table. The floor was dirt so the bile and bits of undigested food landed in a puddle but didn’t splatter much. The dirt was darker in some places. Stained.
Flipping me back over, he smiled as he wiped my mouth. “All better?”
I couldn’t answer, but I wanted to beg. Beg for mercy. Beg for help. Beg to be let go.
He stroked my hair like my mother would when I got sick as a child. “Now don’t you worry. I can clean that mess up in no time.”
I wasn’t worried about the mess. I was worried about what was going to happen to me. Nothing good, that much I knew. But then he stepped away. I couldn’t turn my head, but my eyes tried to follow him. I couldn’t see him. Where had he gone?
Had he left? If I could roll over, maybe I could get off the table and crawl away. Maybe there is someone close. Someone who could help me.
Something snapped. Like a surgeon’s glove. Then again.
My hearing seemed to have increased, but I had to hold my breath because the rush of air in and out of my lungs started to drown out everything else. I stopped breathing.
Soft footfalls on the dirt floor.
Then he started whistling.
An old song that my grandfather had on vinyl. He used to put the old records on as he painted landscapes. He wasn’t a good painter. I knew that even as a child. But the song took me back to his house. A tiny clean space with bad paintings on every wall and songs from the ’40s playing from scratchy records that spun and spun, the needle moving closer to the center with every quick pass.
Grandpa died four years ago. I didn’t keep a single one of his paintings. Why? Why hadn’t I taken just one? If I had, I’d hang it in my dorm room. Above my bed so I could see it every night and think of that time with him—back when my world was small and safe.
The whistling grew louder and the old man reappeared.
Don’t hurt me. Please.
I gasped as my body finally made me breathe again. As I did, more tears fell.
“Do you know why lemon is my favorite?” His breath was rancid as it hit my face. My stomach turned again. “Because the little girls who choose lemon take the longest to die.”
I wanted to scream. I did inside my mind but my voice still didn’t work. My muscles were frozen. The only thing I seemed to be able to control were my eyes and my breathing. And I looked everywhere my eyes could see when he left my side again.
When he reappeared, I noticed he had on long gloves. The snapping sound I’d heard.
He lifted jumper cables and smiled. “Do you like fireworks?” He touched the cables to a car battery and laughed when sparks flew. “Whew! Got a live one here!”
He tossed the cables aside and went to work on unscrewing the caps along the top of the battery. “Know what makes lemon taste so sour? The high level of acid. Yep. Lemon is my favorite.” He started whistling that damn song cheery again. This time, hard as I tried, I couldn’t conjure up images of my grandfather. Or of his paintings.
This time, I couldn’t stop staring as the old man tipped the battery and poured the clear liquid into a glass jar.
“That should do it.” He lifted the bottle up and smiled at me. “Have to use glass. Acid doesn’t eat the glass.” His smile widened. “Will eat you from the inside out, though.”
I tried to move. Tried to roll away. Tried to beg and scream.
I was frozen as he pulled the plunger of a large syringe, sucking the battery acid into the syringe. Showed me the full needle. Flicked the side like a television nurse, then focused on my arm. I couldn’t see what he was doing, couldn’t feel the prick of the needle, but he chuckled.
“You’re a bleeder, aren’t you? No worries. No worries. I’ve got bandages.”
He tore one open. It wasn’t flesh-colored. It had colorful little horses on the surface, as if that would magically make the injury better. My breathing increased—I no longer had control. My eyes darted back and forth—seeking, searching, but finding nothing.
My body started to warm. I couldn’t feel pain, but I could feel heat. Pulsing through me with every erratic heartbeat. Warming me, burning me. From the inside out.
Kendra bounced, missing a string on the chord she was playing, when Shera plopped on her bed.
“He is so freaking dreamy,” Shera said, followed by a long sigh.
“What? Who? Jax, you twit. Did you hear a word he said during your one-on-one or did you just get caught up in his eyes? Because I didn’t hear anything beyond him professing his undying love for me.”
Oh, she had noticed. She didn’t want to notice. But she had. She hated to admit to being star struck, but that was the only explanation to what was going on with her. The way her heart fluttered whenever she caught him looking at her. The way her skin held the heat of his hands long after he stopped touching her. The way his smile made her forget how absolutely miserable she was putting herself on display like this.
Kendra giggled and accepted the licorice Shera held out to her. She took a big bite of the candy as she forced away her memory of her time alone with Jax. “He wants me to sing ‘Stronger.’”
Shera flopped on her side and scrunched up her nose. “Kelly Clarkson? Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. He says I have to get out of my comfort zone.”
“Which you do. You have to quit playing it safe.”
“Kelly Clarkson isn’t safe?”
“Not for you.”
Kendra laughed. She’d actually laughed more since coming to L.A. than she had in a long time. Which felt good. Mandy had been the only one who had made her laugh for so long, she forgot others could possess the ability. Between Jax and Shera, Kendra had managed a good belly laugh a few times a day the last few weeks.
She was so glad that Shera had been selected to stay. She’d have been incredibly lonely without her new friend. Everyone else in this dreadful house—the men included—was too busy counting calories and plotting how to sleep their way into recording contracts. She would be perfectly content to never leave this room other than going to her sessions with Jax. That seemed to be the only thing that was going to be worthwhile.
She didn’t buy into the choreography they were doing and the pitch she had to sing for their team performance wasn’t well suited for her. She was a singer, not a performer. She held firm that there was a difference, no matter what Jax tried to tell her. Yeah, okay, so she didn’t have the stage presence that Brylee had, or even that Shera had, but she had a good voice and even Jax had acknowledged that it was refreshing to see someone just get up and sing.
Kendra dug her teeth into the candy and chewed for a moment. “He says I can’t hide behind my guitar with ‘Stronger.’”
“There’s a guitar in there somewhere.”
“But it’s not highlighted. I like songs with strong guitar riffs so the focus is there.”
“Honey, nobody is looking at the guitar when you are on stage. You were awesome. You really stood out, and that was because of the guitar. Nobody else plays instruments the way you do. We’re all focused on moves and being flashy. It’s awesome that you can do that.”
“Thanks.” Kendra made a face and chomped on what was left of her candy. “I hate this. I hate the spotlight and judgement. I just want to sing.”
“What are you going to do if you win and get a big recording contract? How are you going to avoid being in the spotlight then? I mean, the point of this whole thing is to get a contract and then you’ll be front and center for the whole world to see. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. But she didn’t have to like it.
Shera cast her a side eye glance. “Did you bring up his promise to let Randi take the lead on the group performance?”
“Yes. I gave him a little bit of hell for it, but he said we’d all get a chance to shine. Every week he’ll let someone take the lead, but that taking the lead didn’t mean lead singer. I don’t know how the hell he plans on balancing that out, but whatever. As long as he doesn’t secure her a win because she flashes her boobs in his face, then I don’t care.”
Kendra didn’t mean to have such a drastic reaction, but she inhaled sharply at the thought of Randi and her boobs anywhere near Jax. But she had. And Shera hadn’t missed it.
“I don’t think he will give her an edge,” Shera was quick to add, clearly assuming Kendra’s reaction had been to the idea of Randi winning the contest.
She scoffed at her own response and shook her head. “No. He doesn’t seem to be the type. I’m sure he’ll be fair.”
“He better be,” Shera said falling onto her back again. “Or I’ll make it my mission to make his life hell. And I can, too.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Kendra said, strumming her guitar again, wondering why she cared so damn much about Jax’s response to Randi.
“So?” Jax asked. “You gonna do it? You gonna sing ‘Stronger’ for me?”
Kendra gnawed at her lip. She’d played the song a dozen times the night before. The lyrics finally grew on her and she could see how he thought she would be able to pull it off. But doubt still lingered in her mind. “You really think this is a good idea?”
“I know it’s a good idea. It’s breaking the mold. You gotta break out of this shell if you’re going to stay around. You only have nine weeks left, Kenny.”
Kendra’s gaze darted up and she focused on his face. She hadn’t been called Kenny in years. At least not in a way that was meant as an endearment. Most people used it to sarcastically point out her lack of femininity. She held his stare, saw the eagerness there, and couldn’t seem to refuse him. “Sure. Why not?”
He hooted in triumph. Leaning forward he put his elbows to his knees, closing a bit of the distance between them. “What’s this all about anyway?”
“You. Being here. I’ve never seen anyone so uncomfortable in the spotlight willingly throw themselves into it. Why are you doing this?”
Kendra swallowed as she lowered her gaze. “I told you—”
“Your sister got tired of you talking crap and dared you to audition.”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Not buying it. Why are you here, Kenny?”
She lifted her gaze again. Something about that nickname melted her a little. Jax’s eyes were so piercing she felt like she were being pinned to the spot, unable to move, unable to stop him from reading her mind. The thought made her heart race and she was certain that the feeling of lightheadedness that followed was the color draining from her face. She sat back, putting more of that space back between them. “Sometimes the best way to get over your fears is to face them.”
“What fear is that?”
She glanced in the direction of the camera that she had gotten so used to she usually forgot they were around. Only now, in this moment, she was all too aware of how the lens was directed right on her. “Stage fright, of course.”
He nodded. He didn’t believe her. She could see it in his eyes. But he let it go.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I got the music right here. Let’s get started.”
His dismissal stung for some reason she didn’t understand. He didn’t push when he could have, when he should have. He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t push. That hurt in a way that didn’t make sense. Why did she give a crap what he thought? Her issues were none of his business. But it did matter. He’d thought less of her for the avoidance of the truth. He hadn’t said it, he hadn’t had to. She read it in his eyes.
“I, um, I don’t like the attention,” she said, hoping to give him enough to get him to go back to the hopeful and excited expression instead of the flat disappointed look he’d had when he looked away. “I don’t like having people looking at me. Judging me. It’s hard for me to get past that. Putting my focus on the guitar helps me forget they are watching me. Makes it easier to get through.”
He looked at her for a long moment before grinning. And he was back on her side again. “Well, let’s help you get over it, huh?”
“That’s the plan.”
He pushed a button and the music started. She looked to him one more time and he nodded as if to reassure her before she started singing. She’d barely gotten the chorus out before he reached over and stopped the music.
“Nope,” he said.
“Come on, Ken. I saw you singing last week and I watched the video of your audition. Give me that same passion. I know this isn’t your usual music, but it still has emotion to it. This is a girl who is pissed as hell over being betrayed. Have you ever been betrayed?”
Kendra blinked when flashes of her ex-husband ran through her mind. “Sure. Who hasn’t?”
“Tap into that. Let me feel your anger. Okay? She is determined to prove she isn’t broken. You aren’t broken, either. You’re here, defying what others think, right?”
She gave him a slight grin. “Sure.”
“Yeah,” he said flatly. “That’s the kind of excitement that will take you far. Look, you’re not like the rest of the contestants here. You’re older, less comfortable. As a matter fact, you probably should have gone home the first night.”
“But you’re here,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken. “And there are people out there who want nothing more than to see you go home. To see you fail. Because you don’t fit in and they don’t think you deserve to win. Are you going to prove them right on the first real challenge?”
“No,” she whispered.
He leaned closer. “Are you going to prove them right on the first real challenge?”
“No,” she said more firmly.
“Good. Every singer out there has someone who told them their dream was stupid. You have one too. You think about that person and you take this song, and you tap into that rejection and let them know that you are here to stay. Got it?”
She nodded and drew a breath as he restarted the music. This time, she kept her focus on the sheet music and pulled on every ounce of frustration she felt at Randi and Brylee for their snarky comments. When she reached the chorus, she tapped into every bit of anger she still had toward her ex-husband for all the times he’d laughed at her singing.
She didn’t think she had it in her to sing a pop song, but when she finished, he held his hand up waiting for her give him a high-five. She slapped his palm and he laughed.
“That’s my girl,” he said.
And that was all the payment she needed for subjecting herself to the hell of stepping away from her comfort zone.
Jax sank down in the lounge chair when the door to the patio opened. He had hoped sneaking out the pool at nearly one in the morning would afford him some privacy. It hadn’t. Bare feet slapped on the patio and he watched from where he was practically hiding as Kendra moved to the edge of the patio that overlooked the lights of the city.
He sat silently, watching her stare for what seemed like an eternity. The wind whipped her dark hair and she wrapped her arms around herself even though the breeze wasn’t cold. Then she sniffed and wiped her long sleeve under nose.
Jax sat, frozen. He should leave. This was a private moment. Whatever was going on, she had come out here for the same reason he had. To be alone.
He eased up but then she sniffed again and his feet, damn them anyway, headed right for her instead of the door like he’d intended. “Hey,” he said softly, offering her a weak smile when she jumped at the sound of his voice. “Sorry. Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
She quickly wiped her face and nodded. “Fine.”
“The snot on your sleeve says different.”
She chuckled lightly and his smile spread a bit. At least she wasn’t so far gone she couldn’t give him half a laugh.
“My mama would tell you God made Kleenex for a reason.”
She gave him another soft laugh as she wiped her eyes again.
“What’s up, Kenny?”
Looking out over the city, she drew deep breath. “Oh, you know. Homesick.”
“Yeah. Sure.” She faced him and shrugged. “Why not?”
“Because you aren’t a ten-year-old kid at sleepaway camp.”
She smiled as she lowered her head. He tilted his face down to see hers better.
“Talk to me,” he whispered. She met his gaze, looking like she had plenty to say, but then nodded her head to the right where two cameramen had their equipment trained on them. Boom mics loomed over their heads, capturing every word. Jax sighed. “Do you guys ever sleep?”
They didn’t answer, of course.
Taking her elbow, Jax led her back toward the house. The cameramen followed. “Run on the count of three,” he whispered.
He grabbed her hand and practically dragged her inside the house, slamming the glass door shut and locking it before the techs could get in. He smiled and waved as one of the men lifted his hands, as if to ask what the hell Jax was doing.
Kendra giggled. “Who taught you to count?”
“Who taught you to run?” He led her to the table and pulled out a chair. “I figure we’ve got about five minutes before they radio for one of the cameramen upstairs to get down here, so make this fast. Why were you crying?”
She inhaled deeply and held her breath before letting it out slowly. “Mmm. Nope. Not sharing.”
He lifted his brows and dipped his head. His mother used to give him that stare. “Share.”
She groaned, and he knew his mother’s demanding glare still worked.
“Fine. You told me to tap into my sense of rejection. I did. And it still hurts.”
She didn’t answer right away, but finally she met his gaze. Her eyes were so sad. “Everyone. Everyone but my sister.”
“But whose rejection hurt the most?”
“My ex. He used his words like…daggers.” She bit her lips and tears filled her eyes.
He reached out and wiped one away when it fell. She lifted her wet eyelashes to him and he saw the raw pain. She’d been hurt. Soul deep hurt. It hurt him just seeing the agony in her eyes.
“He’s not here now,” he whispered. “I’m here now. And I believe in you. I more than believe in you. I’m blown away by you.”
She creased her brow and he wondered if he’d overstepped. Hell with it if he had. He wasn’t going to sit there and watch her suffer.
“You’ve got something inside you that threatens other people. Once you learn how to release what’s bottled up inside of you, you’re going to blow them away, too. And they know it. They’re scared of it. Don’t let their fear hold you back.”
She scoffed and shook her head. He gripped her hands in his, tugging until she looked at him again.
“All that crap inside you, all the hurtful words and negative energy are your strength. You take that and you bundle it up and you release it when you sing. Don’t think about me or the contest or the audience. You get up there and you show that bastard that you are stronger. That you are here to win. Because you deserve to win. And I don’t mean this show, Kenny. I mean life. You’re not going to let some jackass ruin the rest of your life. You’re here because you’re ready to let that go, whether you know it or not.”
She lifted her chin a bit. “Make a deal?”
He creased his brow, suspicious of the smirk on her face. “Maybe.”
“I’ll give this song my all. My absolute best.”
“And in exchange?”
“Next week is classic rock week.”
He stared at her for a moment before laughing. Holding his hand out, they shook on it. He probably would have pulled her into a hug, but a cameraman moved into his peripheral vision, reminding him they weren’t the only two people in the world.
He swallowed, wondering how long they’d been there and how much of the exchange was going to be aired for dramatic effect. But then Kendra laughed and shook her head and he realized he didn’t care.
When Friday rolled around and it was time to record the next show, Kendra frowned at her reflection. The monstrosity staring back at her was so far from what she looked like it wasn’t even funny. The costume lady, evil as she seemed to be, agreed to let Kendra wear pants instead of the skirt the other girls on her team were wearing. She still looked like she’d been dressed against her will in the flowing black slacks and tight white blouse. Hell, she was. Her hair, which she always wore down was pulled back in a ponytail, one of those fancy ones with the puff on the top of her head. She had put her foot down at adding swooping lines of eyeliner and glitter eyeshadow.
She left the greenroom with her team, Shera at her side, and got into her pre-performance trance waiting for her cue to go on. She hated this. She hated the song. Hated the tempo. Hated the outfit and the choreography. But she sucked it up. Sucked it up and when Martin pointed at her, she smiled and walked out on stage to belt out her section of the pop song for their group performance. She sang her lines just like rehearsed, hitting each note, moving her feet as instructed, and then moved to the background so she could join in the chorus with her teammates as Randi took the lead…or as Jax had said, the highlight.
The song ended, applause filled the room, and she and her team disappeared to get ready for their individual performances. She dressed in black jeans and black blouse with tall high-heeled black boots. She hadn’t made the decision, but it seemed those were the only shoes she had at her disposal.
She dressed and tugged her hair out of the ponytail. She refused to wear it looking like a horse for her solo.
“Are you singing a vampire funeral march?” Randi asked as she sat in the makeup chair next to Kendra.
As she always did, Ken ignored her and focused her energy on herself.
“Are you always such a snob?”
Kendra finally cast her gaze toward Randi. “Excuse me?”
“I don’t think you’ve said five words to me since you got here.”
“Oh. Well, when you say something nice, I’ll respond in kind, but I have no interest in being catty, so I’ll keep to myself until you give me something else to work with.” She grabbed a brush and pushed herself up, leaving Randi slack jawed in her wake.
Shera sat in front of her half an hour or so later. “What did you say to the Ice Queen?”
“Not much, why?”
“She is on a warpath, Ken. She said you called her a bitch.”
Kendra grinned. “Not in so many words.”
Shera let out a low whistle. “Well, you pissed her off.”
“She’ll get over it. Forget that. What did you think of our performance?”
She rolled her head back. Her hair was red this week. “It was awesome! I loved it! What did you think?”
Kendra chuckled. “I hated it, but I must admit I think we pulled it off.”
“Now that we’ve had a week of coaching with Jax, what do you think of him? Cute, huh?”
Kendra pushed memories of their quick dash into the house from her mind. They hadn’t had long alone, but the few minutes had been emotional. And he’d been so supportive. “He’s nice. I’m still not sure I like his ideas for me, but I’m giving him a chance.”
“Giving him a chance? I’d roll around naked on hot coals if he asked me to.”
Kendra laughed. “Simmer down, Sher, he’s but a mortal man.”
“No. That man has got to be a god somewhere.”
“Kendra,” Martin called. “You’re up.”
“Crap,” Kendra breathed as she pushed herself up. She’d learned not to dally when Martin called her. Young pup that he was, he still had a bite if someone made him wait.
“You got this,” Shera called.
Standing in the wings, waiting to be unceremoniously shoved onto the stage, Kendra closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. She needed to get into her zone and sadly the zone for this one included zeroing in on the one thing she’d love to forget.
She heard her ex-husband’s voice echo through her mind. “You suck, Kendra. Nobody would pay to hear you sing.”
She was nearly there, nearly mad enough at the world to pull off singing a freakin’ Kelly Clarkson song when she heard a gasp next to her. She turned to her right and was met with Randi’s face—eyes wide and mouth open—as she watched the screen leading up to Kendra’s intro.
They couldn’t hear the audio from where they stood, but the visual was more than enough. The scene played out, much like Kendra remember it, with Jax wiping her tear dry and offering her kind words as they sat at the table, analyzing her stupid feelings. The moment had felt intimate at the time, but she’d convinced herself she’d blown it out of proportion, but seeing the video certainly made it look like Kendra and Jax were a bit more than friendly.
“If you think you’re going to sleep your way through this contest,” Randi started. She didn’t get to finish.
Martin gave Kendra the shove she’d been anticipating and she headed out to the stage. She situated in front of the microphone and tried to let her ex into her mind one more time as she strapped on her guitar. Despite Jax’s pleading, she refused to not have her safety net.
That had been the one concession Jax had made. He wanted her move around and egg the audience on. She wasn’t ready for that. They compromised. She’d look up, she’d feel some real emotion, and he’d let her have her guitar.
What they hadn’t prepared for was her to be completely knocked off kilter by having the world see her in a vulnerable moment with Jax tending to her wounds. She swallowed, took a breath, and silently reminded herself that she could do this.
The music started, the spotlight lit, and she lifted her dark eyes to stare into the camera just as Jax had coached her. She started singing, calm at first, and then let a bit of defiance touch her voice.
Finally, she broke the dam on her determination to win and forced it out with the lyrics. By the time she insisted that she’d come back swinging, she really did feel like it had. It wasn’t just an act. It was a determination that she’d tapped into and it was right there on the stage.
She carried on singing, damn near cheering herself through her self-doubt, forcing away the negativity, at least for the next few minutes.
She couldn’t see into the darkened arena so when the song ended, she half expected to be laughed off the stage but the crowd roared and Jax jumped to his feet to applaud her. He actually climbed the steps and threw his arms around her.
She tried to pull back, but he wanted no part of that, he draped his arm around her shoulder and faced the crowd, encouraging them to applaud louder and they did. The moment seemed to last forever, but finally, he dropped his arm and leaned down.
“You did it, Kenny. You showed him,” he said in her ear and then trotted back to where the other coaches were sitting.
She barely heard Jason announce that the show would continue in a moment. All she could hear was Jax’s whisper in her ear.
Now that the celebrity judges had their teams selected, the remaining cast of Music Star Dreams had moved into separate houses. Martin was off the hook from the day-to-day babysitting which would then fall onto the coaches. Kendra was happy to be in a house without Brylee and most of her cohorts, though Brylee’s pet Randi was clearly disgruntled to be separated from her friends.
“First thing,” Jax said to his team as they sat around a long table in the mansion’s open concept dining room. “Just because I sing country doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate other music. I do. I like all music, and I appreciate all talent. My job here is to help you delve deeper and fine-tune the skills you already have. Don’t fight me. Don’t think you know better than me. And don’t piss me off.”
Kendra spared a glance at Shera.
Everybody knew Jax was not in a good place. Recently divorced and on the ugly side of most of the tabloids, rumor had it that Jax only took the job as coach on Music Star Dreams because it was wildly popular and he needed major damage control on his downward spiraling career. The golden boy of country music had said some not so nice things about his darling ex-wife during their split and it had bitten him in the behind.
He’d had the world on a string when the break-up started. His wife, top-selling singer Tanya—just Tanya—had cheated on him with her producer and broken the hearts of all the fans who thought she and Jax were music royalty. But one bad drinking spell and a reporter in the right place at the wrong time had turned the tides. Jax went from being the victim of his wife’s adultery, to a vicious man who deserved it. He was none too happy about his new status and, according to gossip, this was Jax’s way to make nice with his fans again.
Hearing Jax warn about not making him angry seemed to confirm that he wasn’t the prince the country darlings had made him out to be, but the brute his ex was claiming. But then he grinned and winked at the group, and Kendra felt some strange fluttering sensation low in her gut.
She wasn’t one to fall for the charms of a handsome man. She was wiser than that. If the package was too tidy, the inside was likely to be dark and ugly. Egos and pretty boys were like bees and flowers. Where there was one, there was bound to be the other. And one of them was sure to sting some poor unsuspecting bystander. She’d learned her lesson. Cute smiles and well-timed winks didn’t win her over, but damned if she didn’t feel that same tingle when he squared his broad, red-and-black flannel covered shoulders and leveled his dark brown eyes on her. The scruffy three-day looking growth parted to reveal a bright straight-toothed smile.
“I’m kidding, guys,” he said. “I’m not a jerk, so relax.”
Kendra did relax a bit. And then she silently cursed herself for the girly sigh that escaped her.
“This is my first season on the show,” Jax continued with his drawl, “but I did get some pointers from B.G. Y’all know someone from his team won last season, so I think his advice is worth taking. I’m going spend an hour each day with you individually and then an hour with you as a group. We have to do a team performance each week, as well as individual performances. That should give us all enough time to prepare and rehearse.”
He leaned his forearms on the table, looking more like a buddy than a coach. “While I’m working with you individually, your teammates will be working on costumes and choreography. I’ll pick the team song. Sorry, folks, but I don’t want to waste time bickering over it. I’ll do my best to be diverse so each week we have something new to sing that will highlight each of your individual talents. This week we’re covering ‘Shape of You’ by Ed Sheeran. If you don’t know it, learn it. There’s a copy downloaded to the player in each of your rooms. The audience will vote for the winner each week. I expect you all to get enough to stay. Got it?”
Everyone nodded and then Jax slapped his hands on the table. “Okay, head upstairs to find your rooms and get settled in.”
Kendra and Shera joined their chattering teammates in oohing and ahhing at the house they’d be living in. It was much smaller than the one they’d been in for the last week, the one shared with all the contestants, but as far as Kendra was concerned this house was much better.
She really liked the Italian-inspired decor. She’d never been to Italy, and probably never would, but walking through the house made her feel as if she should be able walk out the tall glass-paned doors and right into a vineyard rather than a cement patio with a large pool in the middle.
They took the sweeping staircase and found a room marked for men and another for women. The one at the end of the hall had a big star on it, clearly reserved for Jax. Kendra, Shera, and Randi walked into their shared room and Randi made a beeline for the bed that was closest to the glass doors leading to the balcony.
Kendra didn’t mind taking one of the other beds. The remaining two were so close together she and Shera could pass treats in the middle of the night without having to get out of bed. She smiled at the thought.
“You thinking about how easy it will be to share three a.m. snacks?” Shera asked quietly.
“Sweet,” Shera squealed before collapsing on the bed she was claiming. After a moment, she kicked her legs wildly. “I can’t believe we’re here!”
“I can’t believe I’m stuck with you two,” Randi muttered.
Shera rolled onto her side to face Kendra. “You know what else I can’t believe? Jax Landry is going to be sleeping right down the hall. I wonder if he sleepwalks. Or cooks in his underwear.”
Randi smirked and crossed her arms. “Seriously? Do you really think Jax would even look at you. You’re, like, old.”
“Uh, in case you aren’t aware of this sweetheart, Jax is thirty-seven. I’m two years younger than he is.”
“Are you even old enough to vote?” Kendra asked, tossing her bag on her bed.
“I am twenty-two.”
Shera grinned at her. “I don’t think your age matters. Something tells me the man has had enough of high maintenance bimbos.”
“I am not a bimbo.” Randi huffed and focused on unpacking while Kendra smirked at Shera.
Score one for the old ladies.
“We haven’t been formally introduced,” Jax said as the rest of the team co-mingled while chicken cooked on the grill. He held his hand out to Kendra. “I don’t count that passing moment on stage or our rush to get settled in as a proper introduction. Jax Landry.”
She slid her palm into his and, damn it, his entire hand started to tingle. He’d hoped he had imagined the little spark he’d felt onstage and again when he arrived at the house and his team had surrounded him. He’d instantly sought out the little grungy woman and had nearly chuckled to find she looked pretty much the same off stage as on. Even now, she didn’t seem too interested in hyping her looks up. She was the complete opposite of everything he’d come to expect from the glitzy world that had become normal to him the last few years. He liked that. Liked that her screw-the-world appearance wasn’t just a show.
“That was a hell of a performance you put on yesterday, Kendra.”
She smiled and, damn it again, the blush that swept across her cheeks made his heart beat a little faster.
“Thanks,” she said as she pulled her hand from his. He hadn’t realized he was still holding it. “But I’m told it was nothing compared to some of the other girls.”
“Not everyone enjoys watching someone hump the mic stand. I’ll take a good guitar player and a little head banging anytime.”
She let her mouth fall open and widened her dark eyes. “I went hairband?”
He laughed and a quiet giggle left her, almost too subtle for him to hear, but he did. And it made him pause and clear his throat. “I didn’t know hairband was a verb.”
She confirmed with a dramatic nod. “Oh, it is. And it’s not a compliment.”
“Well, it worked in your favor. It was different, which made you stand out.”
She lifted one shoulder and let it drop casually. “Well, I guess that’s what counts, right?”
He lowered his gaze over her. Even though the sunset was cooling the temperature down, it was still closing in on eighty-five degrees. Shera wore a sundress while Randi pranced in a bikini trying to get Jax’s attention. Kendra, however, had on her trademark jeans. While he admired that she stuck to her own thing, he couldn’t help but ask, “Aren’t you hot?”
“Not much, no.”
“Seriously? Even I had to trade in the cowboy boots for some sandals. It’s hotter than a billy goat’s butt in a pepper patch.”
For the first time since he met her, he got a real laugh. She rolled her head back and let the sound rip from her. Her happiness settled deep in his gut, and he immediately vowed to make it his mission to make as many corny redneck comments as he could to hear the sound again. Unfortunately, though, Kendra laughed loudly enough that Randi pranced over to intervene. God forbid she not be the center of attention. Kendra lifted her brows at Jax when Randi leaned in close to him and peered over her sunglasses.
“Jax,” she said in what seemed to be her trademarked pout, “we haven’t had a minute alone. We have to discuss what I bring to the team.”
Jax opened his mouth, intent on protesting, but Kendra cut him off.
“Well,” she said, “I think I’ll see how dinner is coming along. I’m really hoping they are serving peppers with the chicken.”
Jax snorted, but she disappeared before he could stop her. He did his best to focus on the girl in front of him. She was perky and clingy and as fake as her platinum hair color. He already regretted picking her for his team. She exaggerated her pout and pressed her arms together to shove her barely covered cleavage higher as she talked about her assets.
Lord. He was tired of women like her. He’d married a woman like her. No. He’d married a good woman. Being a celebrity had turned her into that. Tanya hadn’t been the kind of woman to lie and cheat and sleep her way to the top, but she certainly turned into one. The more success Jax found, the more desperate Tanya had become to outshine him.
She had her own brand of success, but it wasn’t on the same level as his and that had driven her crazy. At some point, she’d started desperately backstabbing her way to the top. Too bad it took a tabloid magazine exposing her affair for Jax to realize how much of that stabbing had been done to his back.
And it took one stupid comment in a magazine to take him from the sympathetic husband who’d unwittingly been supporting his wife’s affair, to a man who deserved everything he got.
Note to self: Never give interviews after half a bottle of scotch.
So, no. No matter how many times Randi pouted or flaunted her boobs in his face, Jax wasn’t interested, and he wasn’t taking the bait. He was done with women like this. Women who only cared about their own success. He may not have seen this dark side when he married Tanya, but he certainly recognized it now. And Randi wasn’t even famous yet!
Not that he wanted a woman in his life, but when he did, when he was ready, he’d find someone who wasn’t nearly as shallow.
He didn’t mean for his gaze to wander, but it did. He skimmed the small gathering until he found Kendra talking to Shera. She glanced at him and their gazes locked. She grinned, seemingly aware of his misery and silently mocking it, before she toasted him with her bottle of water.
“Jax,” Randi said putting her hand on his arm. “What do you think of my idea?”
He looked at her, realizing he hadn’t heard anything she had said. “Uh. Yeah, sounds great.”
She clutched her hands together and squealed before throwing her barely clad body at him, hugging him around the neck. “This is going to be so great!” Pulling away, she clapped her hands. “Guys! Jax just agreed to let me be the lead on our group performance!”
The gathering grew quiet. Even Kendra stopped smiling at him.
Crap. He’d agreed to what?
The door to the studio barely closed before Kendra cocked a brow at Jax. Her coach. The person she was supposed to trust to get her to the finish line of this crazy contest. And he was putting Randi in the role of lead singer? They weren’t even supposed to have a lead singer.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I don’t need you to give me that look. I know you think I messed up.”
“Can you trust me? Just a little?”
She sighed and eased her stance, willing to at least give the man his last words before she choked the life out of him. “Fine. Care to tell me why you agreed to Randi’s plan?”
“Well…” He glanced at the camera behind her.
Kendra looked back, too. Funny how she’d already gotten so used to having the crew around that she’d actually forgotten this little confrontation was being filmed for the TV show. She frowned and crossed her arms, still waiting for Jax to convince her he wasn’t setting Randi up to take the crown.
He sat on a stool and clutched his hands together, letting them drop between his spread knees. She thought he actually had a bit of a pout on his face as he shrugged. “I’m not.”
“So you didn’t tell her she could be the lead singer?”
He puffed his cheeks out and let his breath eek out slowly.
“I guess I kind of did, but,” he was quick to add when she rolled her head back. “It’s not what you think.”
“So what is it?”
“You’ll all get a chance to sing, to show your stuff, but this is a pop song. And who could be a better representation of pop than Randi? Right?”
She could see on his face that he was making this up as he went. Crap. She would get stuck with the coach who had no idea what he was doing.
“So. We let Randi carry the team this week. And…someone else carry the team next week. She won’t always be the lead. And calling her the lead is really an exaggeration. She’s the highlight. See? There’s a difference.”
She stared at him for a moment before scoffing. “Right. Sure.” Sitting on the stool next to him, she shrugged. Like she was going to get to the end anyway. “So what are we working on?”
“Ahh. Your performance.”
Kendra squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands over them for good measure as Jax cued up her last two performances. “Don’t make me do this.”
“We’re supposed to analyze each piece you did to see where you need improvement, although I have a pretty good idea already.”
“Do I have to watch?”
“’Fraid so, darlin’.” He laughed as he gently pulled her hands down and clicked the mouse on the laptop in the small studio inside their house.
Her heart pounded at the heat of his fingers around her wrist, still holding her hands from her face even though she’d made no move to hide again. The warmth of his touch was forgotten, and she moaned with humiliation as she watched herself singing. Her voice was fine; her stiff posture was atrocious.
“This is terrible,” she said.
Jax chuckled. “No, it’s not. It’s real. It’s raw. That’s what made it so refreshing. We all—the coaches I mean—said the same thing. You have a true talent that doesn’t require fancy dance moves and flashy lights. You feel the music and it shows. That’s awesome, Kendra. We just need to work on making a stronger connection with the audience. You get up there and you’re in your own world.”
“Okay,” she drawled out. “But you just said you already know what I need to work on, so why are we watching this?”
He turned off the video and faced her. His dark eyes bore into her soul and she felt her cheeks warm. Damn her pale skin for always betraying her.
“Your simplistic performances work for now,” he said, “but when you get down to three or four competitors, it’s going to bite you in the behind. You can’t grab an audience by blending into the background. You need to pull yourself out of that bubble and look at what is going on around you. Look at the fans, connect with them.”
She exhaled slowly. “Yeah. Not so great at that.”
“Have you had any stage experience?”
“Not really. I got caught up in life and music kind of took a backseat.”
“Why are you coming back to it now?”
“I was forced.”
She lifted her brows. “I always give the performers crap so my sister submitted a tape of me singing. But neither of us thought I’d actually get this far. Just getting past the regional auditions was unexpected, but to actually be in the top fifteen is insane.”
“It’s not insane,” Jax said genuinely and her cheeks grew even hotter. “You deserve to be here. Now we have to make sure you stay.”
“I’m not sure Ed Sheeran is the best tool for that. I’m not a pop singer.”
“I think you’ll be surprised what you can do when you step outside your box. What have you picked for your solo?”
“What did you sing for your audition piece? The night you got voted into the top twenty?”
“Ooh, barracuda,” she sang.
He grinned. “Heart, Stevie Nicks, and now Pat Benatar.”
Kendra’s confidence fell. “Is that wrong?”
“Not wrong. Classic rock is your comfort zone, but staying in your comfort zone isn’t going to help you grow, and if you don’t grow, you aren’t going to win. Want to know what we’re going to do for you, Miss Kendra?”
“No,” she deadpanned.
He ignored her. “We’re going to pick a new song to yank you right out of that cozy little bubble and toss you into the spotlight for the world to see. We’re singing a pop song as a group. Let’s pick a pop song for your solo, too.”
“Yay,” she said sarcastically. Even with his cute dimples, gorgeous smile, and sexy Southern drawl, his idea sounded terrible.